Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tago Mago: Permission to Dream, by Alan Warner (33 1/3 Books)

One of the best things about Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series is how much leeway the writers have. They’re free to use autobiography or fiction, or concentrate exclusively on the minutiae of rock lit—music analysis, interviews, an artist’s history, release dates, critical reception, press clippings—to tell the story of the album in question. Alan Warner definitely mixes his modes in his volume on Can’s Tago Mago (1971). We learn about the author’s developing musical interests and record-buying habits as a teenager isolated in small-town Scotland during the late ’70s. Stepping away from his personal history, he also gets down to the nitty gritty of the double album itself; for example, detailing the tape edits on “Halleluwah” (side two of Tago Mago) and interviewing several Can members about their time recording the album. The interviews are also tinged with autobiography, because as Warner explains, he has befriended and even collaborated with the band in the years since he dedicated his debut novel Morvern Callar to Can bassist Holger Czukay.

The autobiographical sections are fascinating and hilarious. I’m predisposed to being interested, though, as I’ve been an Alan Warner fan ever since my wife-to-be gave me The Soparanos to read right before we started going out. His descriptions of his interior life as an “aloof, pretentious, eccentric” boy fumbling his way towards musical sophistication are priceless. Curious to push through the heavy metal vernacular of his peers (“Each one of my friends was emotionally sympathetic and spiritually aligned to the activities of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow,” he says) he buys dodgy post-breakup Sex Pistols albums and a Weather Report LP with a compelling and mysterious cover, and finds much of interest, especially in the latter. The search for anything by Can, inspired by John Lydon referencing Can and their drummer’s “double beats” in one of the weekly music papers, leads him to the big city, Glasgow, and the Virgin Megastore where he eventually acquires the holy grail—Tago Mago.

Any serious music fan can relate to the impressions that Warner describes on his journey to Can—the unforgettable impact of an album’s arrival, and the profound meaning that an inanimate object can instantly possess: “I remember the euphoria of being on the train home, splitting the cellophane wrapping all the way around, to peel it completely free and open up the concealed centrefold sleeve…” Passages like that make me I think, Okay, Warner, can we have 200 more pages of that, please? Tell us about all your records, man!

However, it’s a 33 1/3 book, and the format won't allow for 200 more pages, so Warner uses the second half of the book to discuss the history and philosophy of analogue tape editing, the evolution of the band, and the genesis of, and curiosities to be found within, the tracks on Tago Mago. He includes snippets of conversations with Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, and Jaki Liebezeit, purveyor of the double beats. For some, having only half a book devoted in-depth to Tago Mago might not be enough. There is plenty more Can documentation they can seek out. I was left happy, and curious to hear more of the Can discography, as well as hear many of the members’ solo releases, which Warner often references. I was inspired to get out the album and listen along as he detailed each track. And by the end of the book I was an even bigger fan of both the author and his subject.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Jeff Younger's Devil Loops Volume 2 CD Release, June 18, 2014 at the Orpheum Annex

Jeff Younger continues to push his Devil Loops project into new territories, and this event was the furthest he’s pushed it yet. In my reviews of his previous CDs, I’ve noted that the music itself is layered and detailed, alternately soothing and aggressive, and rewards close listening. Younger composes in the moment with guitar, amp, and effects pedals, but also with household objects (combs and nail files) and even a new set of gestures and ways of playing—breathing into the pickups, mashing the strings, or scraping the tremolo springs behind the guitar body. Avant-rock bands like Sonic Youth have been sticking screwdrivers through their strings for decades, but Younger takes these techniques in a completely different direction. Devil Loops on CD is a deep listening experience, its abstract nature also inviting interpretations from other artistic disciplines.

That multi-disciplinary potential was fully and wonderfully realized at the Devil Loops volume 2 CD release event at the Orpheum Annex. The Annex is a big room that’s quite a shift from the kinds of intimate venues that Younger often performs in, but it was perfectly suited to this event, which combined music, dance and visual art into a often-dazzling whole. Every performer brought the spirit of Devil Loops alive in all that project’s challenging, mischievous permutations.

The night started with a playback of several tracks from the album with video accompaniment by Flick Harrison, as well as a solo dance segment by Renee Sigouin to “Queen Bee.” Sigouin was joined by fellow dancers Elissa Hanson and Alexa Sloveig Mardon for “Roomies.” To finish the first half, Younger took his seat on the huge stage (the floor, to be precise) and embarked on the first live Devil Loops music of the event. After intermission, the action got more freewheeling and frenzied, with Younger joining forces with drummer Dylan Van Der Schyff, Chris Gestrin on piano and synthesizer, and JP Carter on trumpet and effects. As the various configurations of dancers and musicians worked together, the action was so involving, the attention required so demanding, that I sometimes wanted to laugh out loud at the brave abandon of it. (I apologize to any of the dancers who came near the front row and might have noticed my agitation—I was just getting caught up in it all.) Dylan Van Der Schyff is the most creative drummer I’ve even seen—for every “out there” technique that Younger used, Van Der Schyff had one of his own. For the show’s finale, every performer was out on the floor, including Flick Harrison, who was shooting live video from every perspective for simultaneous projection on the big backdrop screen.

To see this group of performers working so well together to manifest the whole Devil Loops ethos was a testament to Jeff’s curatorial skills. Although he was at the centre of a lot of the action, he remained a calm presence, presiding over the performances as a guiding spirit, letting the ensemble of diverse talents speak for itself—and they did him and his music proud. It was a night that left my head buzzing with inspiration and endless possibilities.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Yob—Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot)

The newest release from the legendary Oregonian doom trio turns out to be the most open and expansive Yob album. With only four songs, it originally struck me as a very long EP. I felt during the first few listens that it might have lacked enough content to make for a satisfying 62 minutes. I still can’t shake that notion; however, Clearing the Path to Ascend just needs to breathe and be whatever it wants to be. Not forcing things is what Yob’s all about. In a way, they’re saying more by saying less. “In Our Blood” eases us into the album with a mere 17 minutes of everything that makes Yob great: lumbering riffs rippling with complex overtones, downward shifts into sparse strumming and shock-cut volume dynamics—the whole whisper-to-a-roar gambit. “Nothing to Win” almost takes the form of a conventional rock song with its tense-verse-and-cathartic-chorus structure. That impression is undone, of course, by the dissolution of all that during the song’s second half. But man, does it build to a huge finish. The song highlights the album’s murky production—it’s not bad or detrimental to the material; it’s just such an onslaught of competing tones. That element of the Yob aesthetic hasn’t changed. The drums fight to get through beneath the mattress pile of guitars, which is always threatening to collapse and smother you for good. The last track is really something magical, and it’s the one I’ve had to work hardest to change my perspective on. At first “Marrow” seemed bloated—a nearly 19-minute song made from about 8 minutes of material. There’s no question that it’s a beautiful set of chords with an affecting melody overtop. Mike Scheidt sings his heart out on it. Moodwise, it feels like a heavy ballad from the ’70s in the tradition of “Here Again” by Rush, “Parents” by Budgie, or Zep’s “No Quarter”. Those bands managed to say their piece in the space of 7 to 10 minutes; why couldn't Yob? Damn modern bands and their lack of self-editing. But “Marrow” develops beautifully and it does have enough content for what would have been a side-long epic back in olden times. It’s the most graceful song they’ve recorded, and when I hear the first few notes ring out, I know that I’m in for one of the year’s best pieces of music.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Z—Visions of Dune (InFiné)

Based on the liner notes for this album, Bernard Szajner (aka Z) sounds like an all-round genius—a visual artist, musician, inventor, and engineer. As the creator of light shows for Euro-prog outfits like Gong and Magma, he specialized in transforming sound to image. With Visions of Dune, originally released in 1979, the transformation is reversed: Szajner’s own visions of Frank Herbert’s universe are translated into sound. The sounds themselves are quite spectacular. Szajner bases everything on his all-powerful synthesizers, and employs a team of guest musicians to fill out the picture with guitar, bass and drums. It’s planetarium music for sure, but unruly and unsettling enough to plunge into some truly dark matter. Z’s cosmos is not necessarily a harmonious, friendly environment. The tracks are relatively short for this kind of exploratory music, especially compared to Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze’s side-long excursions. However, they often crossfade to provide seamless stretches of listening. The drones and sweeps of “Dune” are like an approaching wall of fog that give way to the percolating sequences of “Bashar” and the following tracks. Drums enter the picture on “Bashar” and “Fremen” to lay down a funky beat. The chaos and overlapping elements remind me of Heldon’s anarchic approach. The feeling of barely reined-in circuitry is very similar. Who’s winning—man or machine? The mp3 download included with the vinyl adds two bonus tracks that were originally left off the album for being “too futuristic.” Indeed, the moaning, scraping bleakness of “The Duke” and droning menace of “Spice” are interesting diversions from the main programme. Jodorowsky shouldn’t have bothered trying to cajole Pink Floyd into making the soundtrack for his own vision of Dune. If he’d waited long enough, he might have stumbled on this music instead. I’m betting Jodorowsky and Szajner would have been a good match. This album is a brave new world to discover, even 35 years after the fact.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Five

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats—Mind Control (Rise Above)
Discovering the musty, macabre thrill-show of Blood Lust late in 2012 certainly got me primed for the arrival of Uncle Acid’s next collection of debauchery. Mind Control is less ramshackle than Blood Lust—it sounds as though everyone had learned the material before turning up at the studio, which lends certain songs (“Poison Apple”, “Mind Crawler”) the kind of punch that Blood Lust achieved, I suspect, only through happy accident. Overall, though, it’s a little less urgent than its predecessor, a little more sunburnt if not desiccated, which suits its Manson family/California nightmare theme perfectly. As with Manson, psychedelics and The Beatles enter the picture as well, especially during the “Blue Jay Way” strains of “Death Valley Blues”, which is where the album peaks for me. Sometimes they’re unfocused, sometimes songs drive towards endings that turn out to be just a mirage and they wind up wandering aimlessly across the desert. But I have to trust whoever’s in charge because the whole thing simply works for me, the songs occasionally achieving a grimy sort of grandeur, as on “Desert Ceremony.” I’m game to follow Uncle Acid and crew off whatever artistic cliff they’re racing towards next.

Blood Ceremony—The Eldritch Dark (Rise Above)
Toronto’s own minstrels in the gallery triumphed this year with The Eldritch Dark, a witchy, hooked-filled delight. What stands out most is their unpretentious celebration of a good tune and a solid riff. They're a refreshingly down-to-Earth four-piece band with spare arrangements that still made room for detailed, elegant songs like “Drawing Down the Moon” and should-be-a-hit “Goodbye Gemini.” They don’t just blindly worship at the church of Sabbath; I wouldn’t doubt they're down with Fairport Convention too. In a year when I took a wrong turn or two when it came to stoner-y stuff (man, I did not get along with that Orchid album at all), Blood Ceremony delivered in terms of originality and personality. Seeing them on tour across the country with Kylesa and White Hills this year proved that they’re for real. I’ve been curious about this band for a while, and I’m glad I picked this album to join them on.

Purson—The Circle and the Blue Door (Rise Above)
Rise Above are finding the greatest bands these days. Purson’s debut album is sheer class, confidently occupying its own loftspace somewhere in the neighbourhood of prog and stoner rock. They’re a bit like Curved Air in that they don’t swing hard in one direction or the other; they simply make a hell of a pleasing sound—maybe a little too elaborate for the mainstream, but at their core they rock hard enough for the jean jacket crowd. Singer/guitarist Rosalie Cunningham has a similar “don’t mess with me” tone to the mighty Sonja Kristina. Note that the only band on Rosalie’s thank-you list is The Beatles, so she’s clearly been inspired, songwriting-wise, by the masters. It’s worrying to see that the band that recorded the album and the current group have completely different lineups (aside from Cunningham), but here’s hoping that they can make this a going concern. Anyway, the Purson you hear on The Circle and the Blue Door are a band with a haughty allure, with songs that rock with carnivalesque abandon and defy you to write them off as merely “promising.”

Anciients—Heart of Oak (Season of Mist)
From my blurb for Hellbound’s year-end roundup: It was a thrill to watch Anciients on the rise throughout 2013. From tours with TesseracT, Death (Official), and Lamb of God to an invitation to play Roadburn in 2014, it was clear that the Vancouver quartet had arrived. Their calling card, of course, was their magnificent debut album. Heart of Oak sings with style and confidence. Each of its nine tracks reveals an innate understanding of how epic metal songwriting works, while never resorting to formula. It’s fun to imagine them in a makeshift lab in some desolate Quonset hut feverishly distilling their sound from casks labeled “Opeth,” “Mahavishnu,” “Celtic Frost,” and “Thin Lizzy,” but the truth is, there are no simple recipes for successful heavy metal. Anciients had the inter-band chemistry, taste, and, most of all, the work ethic to lay this record down, get it right the first time, and proceed to take on the world.

Steven Wilson—The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (k-Scope)
Wilson’s previous solo work (that is, the solo work released under his own name, not the early one-man-band Porcupine Tree albums) was, in the context of latter-day Porcupine Tree, a little experimental and reticent. Insurgentes was full of new ideas and interesting treatments. 2011’s Grace for Drowning was diverse and expansive, taking on classic progressive rock tropes and owning them. That double album often brought the hammer down, but not in the way The Raven That Refused to Sing does. The Raven… reduces the palette compared to the often jazzy textures on Grace…, and delivers six masterful songs. Out of all the “Steven Wilson” releases so far, doesn’t feel like a solo album at all. You can tell he poured his heart into this, as songs like “The Raven That Refused to Sing” make an emotional impact equal to their musical muscle. Lyrically, he makes a welcome break from the topical, contemporary themes of Porcupine Tree, and instead tells stories in each of the songs (although there’s surely social commentary within the sad tale of “The Holy Drinker”). Much as I like cheering for the underdog and championing certain music for its endearing imperfections, I do love this almost ruthlessly impeccable album, and have no problem putting it at the top of my Best of 2013 list.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vancouver International Jazz Festival, June 20–July 1

A friend of mine, a man of letters and excellent taste, has a saying: all the best porn is at the library. Along similar lines, I guess, is something that I myself have discovered: all the best prog is at the Jazz Fest. Most of it is available for free too, just like those volumes of literary smut at the library.

The main outdoor stages on opening weekend were down at Robson Square and the Art Gallery. I headed there on Sunday for what I called “Norwegian Power Trios on Rune Grammofone Day.” Bushman’s Revenge provided a great moment even before they’d struck a note, as a couple gentlemen, clearly up for some jazzy-jazz, caught sight of guitarist Even Helte Hermansen’s KISS hoodie and immediately bailed on the show. Once the band got going, they produced an intense, surging, psychedelic morass of sound; very much to my liking—they reminded me of My Brother the Wind or Guapo at times. It started to warm up in front of the Art Gallery, and the guitariist’s KISS hoodie came off, revealing a Sepultura Beneath the Remains t-shirt. Although they were the first band I’d seen, Bushman’s Revenge had already won the Jazz Fest, in my view. I went over afterwards and bought their Thou Shalt Boogie LP from their drummer, who kindly threw in a promo CD version so I’d had a digital copy as well.

Even more devastating were The Hedvig Mollestad Trio, who played the same stage a few hours later and joyfully whipped up a crowd of casual onlookers with a torrent of heavy riffs and, yes, blistering solos. Wearing a sparkly red minidress topped off with an Uli Jon Roth-style headband, Ms. Mollestad was all smiles as she wielded a volatile ES-335*. Bassist Ellen Brekken was equally cheerful, but make no mistake, this band was intent on rocking the place down with their Dixie Dregs-jamming-with-Electric Wizard brain-frying jazz fusion. They were the ideal blend of showmanship and musicianship, and I, just a mere loser, did not at all feel worthy approaching their merch table after their set. However, I managed to sputter out some thanks to Hedvig, hand her some money, and walk away with a copy of Enfant Terrible. It was the best of all possible Sundays.

Friday was my first and only ticketed show of the fest, with Pugs and Crows with Tony Wilson. The show was part of the late-night series at the Ironworks, a busy festival venue at the foot of Main Street. In the years since I reviewed their first album, Pugs and Crows have thrived, winning a Juno for their follow-up collection Fantastic Pictures. While last year’s Jazz Fest show at the Electric Owl was a scorcher, this one was a little more nuanced, suitably so given the seated venue and attentive audience. You couldn’t call what guest guitarist Tony Wilson does as “sitting in”—he knows the repertoire and contributes substantially to group’s sound, which is led by Cole Schmidt’s guitar and Meredith Bates’ violin. The rhythm section of Cat Toren (piano), Russell Scholberg (bass) and drummer Ben Brown has a delicate touch, but never plays purely a supporting role. Nobody in Pugs and Crows hogs the spotlight. There’s always so much going on onstage with this terrific band that it’s hard to know where to look.

Saturday I headed to Performance Works at Granville Island for the Lisa Cay Miller Trio (LCM, piano; Andre LaChance, bass; Dylan Van Der Schyff, drums). I found them tricky and inventive, with a fine ear for extended, somewhat sinister riffs. Miller started with a solo piece, featuring what looked like mason jar lids laid across the piano strings, producing a clattering, harpsichord-like effect. I would have liked to stay for all of their second set, but I had to get across False Creek to catch two more bands at the Roundhouse.

I crossed the water in style, on the Aquabus in the company of maniac axe-god Jeff Younger, bobbing through the mega-yacht maze towards Yaletown. I arrived in time to see 4 = 4, a newish band led by guitarist Tom Wherrett and featuring Meredith Bates of Pugs & Crows, drummer Mike Magnusson and James Meger on bass. Their material was spirited and tasteful (including a Yo La Tengo song), but to be honest I didn’t see enough of them to get a real handle on their style. I wish I’d taken some notes so I could describe their sound here in any sort of detail. Wherrett is a terrific guitarist, though, and anything he’s involved with is worth hearing.

During the break I walked around the festival grounds. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything happening on the rain-besieged big stage at David Lam Park. Instead I checked out the food trucks and met my friend Smash prior to heading back to the Roundhouse hall for Sick Boss. Led by Cole Schmidt, the six-piece played a marvellous first set, sounding what I can only describe as jazzy post rock along the lines of a less bombastic Do Make Say Think. Having an oboe and accordion in the band gives them some folky textures that they take in any number of exotic directions. Debra Jean Creelman came on to sing on one song (as she had with Pugs and Crows the night before) to devastating effect. Any time she’s in the house you know you’re going to be crushed. According to Smash, she came back for more in the second set, but I was done for the day.

So although I chose a small sample of acts this year, I think I chose well. Despite some panic when I first picked up the program and tried to plan what I could see, it turned out it wasn’t very hard at all. Many thanks to the organizers for selecting such fine bands and venues, and for making it all available for free, or at a reasonable price. I can’t wait till next year—maybe I’ll get to see one of those jazz bands where someone plays a saxophone.

 *My best guess.

Monday, June 02, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Four

Clutch—Earth Rocker (Weathermaker)
Earth Rocker sank out of sight for a while there in 2013, but returned with a mighty wallop. I bought the album when it came out—sounded great—and saw the sold-out show at the Commodore shortly afterwards—had a great time bro-ing down with all the Clutch fans. After that flurry of activity, Earth Rocker got put aside. When it was time to make this list, I put it on again and…whoa, this is a killer album! It’s a lean, punchy collection. The keyboards are gone, so it’s just guitars, drums and Fallon in fine form. A few of the tracks are instant classics (the title track, “Crucial Velocity” and “Unto the Breach” at the very least). The rest are the kind of deep cuts that keep an album raging from start to finish. How Clutch has managed to run so hot for so long is beyond me, but if they ever wanted to sell their secrets to other musicians, I’m sure they could retire wealthy men.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)
This felt like an effort to shake things up in the Bad Seeds camp. The songs didn’t sound composed in the classic songwriter sense—you know, verses, choruses and such worked out in private and then presented to a band for fleshing out —but were clearly based on jams. “Jubilee Street,” for example, is a one-riff concept that builds to an ecstatic release, mirroring the singer/narrator's dream of transformation. Small sounds prevail: a brief bass loop; a violin lick flashes by like a sparrow; a crisp, simple beat starts a song. The results are often tense, mysterious and threatening. Throughout, Cave is laid-back but intense, giving his words an unfiltered flow to match the music, and dropping images of surreal derangement: “I got a fetus on a leash,” he claims on “Jubilee Street” On “Higgs Boson Blues,” Lucifer has “100 black babies running from his genocidal jaw.” Push the Sky Away was compelling little world of words and music, and a successful exercise in spontaneity tempered with careful consideration.

Scale the Summit—The Migration (Prosthetic)
So many notes! These Scale the Summit kids can sure play. They trade in clean, concise progressive metal in the same sphere as Cynic, except without any singing. Every song is packed with solos, rhythmic changeups, and loud-soft dynamics. The quartet obviously have many years of theory and practice behind them, but they’re using their powers for good, taking their music on the road and delivering it with authority on stage. So what gives them the edge over the dozens of bands trying to do the same thing? I`d say it`s balance, composition, and taste. The chemistry between the musicians is such that everyone contributes equally to the music’s impact, which strikes me as an impressive feat. Playing at such a high level, there’s a danger of cancelling each other out, the same way mixing primary colours together produces black. They’re focused on the songs, which are arranged in a way that respects their audience’s attention spans. Scale the Summit seem to know that you can practice scales till your hands fall off, but if you can’t entertain anyone with your music, you’ve got nothing.

The Opium Cartel—Ardor (Termo)
The second album from the Opium Cartel will charm the pants off you. If the music doesn’t make you wanna take it off and get it on, then maybe the album cover will (phew!). At this point it’s a little tough to distinguish the Opium Cartel from White Willow, bandleader Jacob Holm-Lupo’s other prog-rock ensemble. The main point of departure is that the Opium Cartel skew more towards pop music, although it’s pop music of the most lush, sophisticated sort. Remember when Peter Gabriel had hit songs on the radio? It seems that happened a lifetime ago in an alternate universe, but to me, the Opium Cartel are going for a similar kind of left-of-centre catchiness. In a better world, they would be kings (and queens) of the airwaves. There are big choruses, inventive rhythm tracks, swathes of wonderful synths, and a pristine production job. If you liked So (or anything by Talk Talk, Jane Siberry or Kate Bush for that matter), then The Opium Cartel are your bag. And aside from all the shiny sounds and sexy good times, Ardor also supplied the spookiest thing I heard all year: a spellbinding cover of BÖC’s “Then Came the Last Days of May.” Wrecks me every time.

Guapo—History of the Visitation (Cuneiform)
The return of Guapo proved to be an exciting thing. This release featured 42 minutes of new music and a live DVD of the band ransacking NEARfest a while back. Only 42 minutes of new music, though, you say? Well, that’s how long albums used to be, and that’s the way we liked it. All three tracks are quality fodder, and “The Pilman Radiant” is the best long-form track I’ve heard in ages. Reviewed in full here.